‘On one wicked day, son. One wicked day! Merciless rain will ram the egoistic soil of this arrogant mountain and the rocks will break free! And the beastly boulder on the left will dash down the mountain…and crush six of these houses to one big and flat godhamba rotti.’ The ‘mad’ professor stood outside Bassa’s kitchen and spoke looking straight into Bassa’s eyes. Till the utterance of these words Bassa’s eyes had been as empty as a cheap novel, well defended by thick glasses, but now they flickered. Bassa remained still like the beastly boulder that threatened his house. His stillness disturbed the ‘mad’ professor. Time had withered the professor’s body. His unkempt silver hair and fresh white kurta danced in the wind that blew down from the mountain. He tapped with his walking stick for emphasis and repeated his words. Failing to elicit a response he peered into Bassa’s face and asked in a thin, vulnerable voice: ‘Death doesn’t bother you – huh?’ A strong gust of wind rattled the old kitchen window and swept away an empty plastic water bottle from the kitchen table.
The professor might not have seen the large white flags that hung from both the back and front doors of the house next to Bassa’s, or the black-and-white death notices pasted on all the trees in the neighbourhood, with the smiling face of the dead man and the headline ‘Anichcha Watha Sankhara’, declaring the inevitable decay of component things.
A long time ago, Bassa’s grandfather and five able men had occupied this land under the ‘Maha Gaani Kanda’ (The mountain of the big woman), so named because of two massive rock boulders on the mountain face that looked like two giant breasts from afar. They built asbestos shacks at the base of the mountain. Humiliating and back-breaking work for politicians during elections later helped them obtain title deeds to the land. That was how Bassa was born into this world as a legitimate houseowner.
As a grown man Bassa did his father proud by converting the humble shack into a respectable abode made of bricks with a tiled roof. He bought the corner shack from its owner who was drowning in gambling debts, converting it into a brick-tile entity. He gifted it to his sister, a talkative woman with a large posterior and a backbone made of wrought iron. Like any other young man of his generation, Bassa married, fathered a child – a son – and brought him up. Unlike any other young man of his generation, he managed to end his marriage and alienate his son, who continued to live with him in the same house but did not speak to him.
Bassa’s mind had recorded the professor’s words. They played inside his head over and over, the way he played Hindi songs on his two-in-one cassette player as a teenager. These words had a mesmeric power over him; at times they went to sleep with him and dissolved into his dreams. The dreams were enthralling: he became the rock boulder, and dashed down the mountain sweating and screaming, yearning to crush blood, bodies, bricks and asbestos; like an army of rapists he screwed each house until they all turned to fine dust in an orgy of macabre lust. He didn’t even spare his own house. Whenever there was an opportunity he watched the rock boulder with the vigil and zeal of a star-gazer searching for a new planet. Early one morning he even climbed the mountain and caressed the rock boulder until its frigid coldness was registered in his mind.
Bassa was a confused bag of emotions. In addition to mindless destruction, his essence also consisted of romantic nostalgia … of a past that simmered perpetually in a curry … a past that was marinated forever in spices … a past that could be reduced to a proper noun: Ambul Thiyal.
A long time ago – or so it seemed, though it was actually just a year – before the advent of the ‘mad’ professor, before the white flags next door, or death notices on trees, Bassa was a ‘normal’ man, who avoided church on Sunday mornings and read newspapers at home. His wife was a Sunday-churchgoer and his son was a workaholic who worked all seven days of the week.
On one insignificant Sunday, as Bassa, alone, dipped his nose in a fat Sunday newspaper, he found himself getting annoyed at the loud noise of chopping – a knife striking a wooden board – from the house next door. The chopper was very likely alone at home, because her elder son usually managed a Sunday stall at the market; and she was cutting a stubborn part-frozen block of fish into manageable pieces. ‘Stop that noise, you mad cunt!’ he screamed, unable to tolerate the noise any longer. But she continued. He got up, as angry as an insulted politician. With a gentle push he opened her dilapidated front door and walked into her small hut. Just before he reached the kitchen, the chopping noise stopped and he heard the sound of a water tap. As he came into the kitchen, she was squatting by the kitchen tap, washing the red chunks of fish. The spurt of water from the tap was aggressive, and she shielded the pink flesh with her fingers and allowed only a certain amount of water to seep through, just enough to wash the fish. She stretched towards a fresh saucepan to place the washed fish, but it was out of her reach. Bassa gave her the saucepan, something he had never done for his own wife. She didn’t look at him, but accepted the saucepan. Bassa noticed her sweat-soaked bra. He couldn’t pluck his gaze away from the sight.
Ever since her husband succumbed to an abnormal growth in his liver, she had worn a white saree. Her only white saree was falling apart. Bassa had bought her a brand-new saree, and handed it to her at the bus stand. Her face lit up when she saw the saree, but she wasn’t ready to accept it immediately.
‘Take it, you need another saree,’ he insisted.
‘But … how can I take it, Bassa Aiya?’
‘Take it with your hands,’ Bassa said, this time flirtatiously, surprised at himself.
She smiled, revealing her betelnut-discoloured teeth. Her vulnerability suddenly dissolved and a mischievous twinkle possessed her eyes for a fleeting moment.
It was apparent to her from the location where the gift was given – the bus stand –that the saree should remain their secret. Exchange of gifts between men and women who are not married would be grossly misinterpreted in their community.
She adroitly dried the fish chunks using a sheet of white paper. Then she placed a soot-blackened earthenware pan on the hearth. She blew into the fire using a bamboo pipe to rouse the flames. As the air flirted with the embers, the fire sprang to life like an angry snake. Heat penetrated every atom of the earthenware pot, as she began to dip the fish cubes in a dark concoction of goraka, salt and pepper. Bassa knew that she was cooking Ambul Thiyal.
The fish cubes, baptised in the spicy dark concoction, were rendered unrecognisable. Bassa could see her hips between the saree and the blouse, the flesh as soft and sensuous as spice-coated fish. His penis was hard and rebellious, tussling with his underwear.
She placed the spice-coated fish cubes on the hot pan, each piece placed at a distance from the other. Bassa gently put his hand into the hot pan and brought two fish cubes together. She slapped his hand admonishingly, and moved the fish cubes apart. He brought them together again, and she again moved them apart. When he did it the third time, and she slapped his hand again, he grabbed her wrist. With her other hand she went on rearranging the fish cubes. ‘You’ll never let me cook this,’ she said in a seductive whisper. He could suddenly imagine how her breasts looked. Bassa sweated profusely … a gust of wind slammed the Sunday newspaper and scattered the pages all over the front garden…
Thus began the restless period of unusual sensual excess, every Sunday almost at the same time. When the Sunday trysts were disrupted by the presence of other people, she cooked the Ambul Thiyal, which became the symbol of a passionate sexual encounter.
Trouble began when Bassa’s wife unexpectedly stopped her communal praying in church and began to instead pray before a chosen sacred corner in their home, decorated with Biblical pictures. Bassa watched his wife praying with a mixture of apprehension and awe. She was not attractive, and she was not somehow real to him until he saw her praying intensely. These thoughts disappeared with the very first sound he heard from the next-door kitchen. His primitive urges were like a steaming barrel of tar – they pummeled and froze any other sensation. So, when his wife was engrossed in prayers in the ‘home church’, Bassa would tiptoe into the neighbour’s house, into her rough passionate arms, into her faded silk white blouse, into her faded sweaty white bra, into … into … her.
Their Sunday bliss lasted nearly eight months before it was discovered. In the midst of an explosive sexual encounter on the kitchen floor, Bassa felt a momentary presence behind him. Turning to look, he saw nothing, but clearly heard retreating footsteps. The kitchen door remained slightly ajar. Her head was squashed under his chest, eyes closed to the world, hands clutching his buttocks, loveable pain and fleeting pleasure writ equally on her face.
He didn’t go home until late that night. By that time his wife was gone. The sacred corner was dismantled, for which he was grateful. The only thing she left him was his angry son: ‘Don’t look for her, you mad motherfucker! I’m only staying with you because she asked me to stay! I’m not killing you because she made me promise not to!’ Those were the last words his son ever said to him. ‘Be glad that your father is not among the living – your widow mother is a father-fucking whore,’ his son told her elder son, the market stall owner, and thus started the bushfire that spread all over the village.
Bassa was subjected to many insults during the ensuing days as their illicit love story did the rounds of the village.
‘All seven forms of lightening should strike her cunt!’
‘Why only her – what about him?’
‘We thought that at her age no one can fuck her.’
‘Only he can – his penis must be made of PVC pipes’
‘Don’t give him any electrical jobs.’
‘Never visits a temple, church or kovil – no wonder he can sin with a calm face.’
‘Bluefly loves shit.’
‘Imagine how his son feels.’
‘He’s not a real father – he’s a motherfucker.’
Bassa heard and chose to remain indoors. He remembered his previous efforts to bring electricity to the neighborhood. Some of these people who moralised outside could not even afford to pay their share of money for the lamp-posts and wires. It was Bassa who had lent them money. It was his ‘magic electric hands’ that wired their houses to receive electricity. He was their heroic ‘current man’ before all this.
On the eighth day after his wife’s departure, the next-door woman cooked Ambul Thiyal. An explosively spicy Ambul Thiyal – so powerful was its smell that her neighbours immediately forgave her ‘whorish tendencies’ and crept into her kitchen for a share: ‘You should be given a national award for this Ambul Thiyal – it is tastier than the defeat of the LTTE,’ said a middle-aged woman who had spat on the road when she had seen the next-door woman the other day. The woman cooked Ambul Thiyal regularly and Bassa read the message enshrined in every dish. That was why he never left the house if he could help it. He wanted her badly, but he could no longer slip into her house – both of them were under constant watch by their own offspring. But it was the secret sensuality of Ambul Thiyal that kept Bassa happy.
One year after his wife’s departure, the neighbour’s younger son – who was employed in the Middle East as a driver – came home with a destructive growth in the liver and a possible date to die. The very first word he uttered when he saw his mother was: ‘Whore’. He spent the next few days cursing and screaming to the whole village that his liver condition and his mother’s libido were connected. ‘They fucked my liver,’ he screamed over and over, despite pleas by his mother to stop. Bassa’s son listened to the ravings of a dying man for three days in a row, and on the fourth day he mercilessly beat up Bassa in front of the neighbours. He ended the performance by smashing his father’s spectacles and shouting: ‘See if you can find her pussy now!’ The bystanders cheered.
It was Bassa’s sister with the big mouth and unusually large posterior who saved him: ‘Is this the way to treat your father, boy?’ she asked his son in a tone of voice that was enough to disperse the moral cheer squad. It was his sister’s mouth that had saved the young men in the neighbourhood from being drafted into the armed uprising of 1989. His son did not argue, but withdrew into the house. All this time his sister hadn’t got involved in this issue, but this time she did. ‘If you want to have sex, I can find you prostitutes,’ his sister told him while applying oil on his beaten-up body.
That night was the quietest night in the neighborhood. Everyone seemed depressed by what they had witnessed. And then the next-door woman cooked an Ambul Thiyal with lots of Gorakka. The smell was different and strange. No one could eat it – its bitter sourness disturbed the brain, shattered the spirit.
That night, her younger son committed suicide; daylight saw his body hanging by his own sarong from the strongest plank in the roof. The responsibility for the death automatically fell on Bassa and the next-door woman.
He avoided the funeral; his son, on the advice of neighbours, went away to Colombo for a few days. When everyone else went for the funeral, Bassa locked himself up in the house. There was a timid knock on the back door, a feminine knock. ‘Open this door, stupid man, I am not a priest, I’m a professor!’
The ‘mad’ professor stared at Bassa as he opened the door.
A year had passed since the suicide of the younger son, and life went on as normal in the houses under the Maha Gaani Kanda. The only abnormal was that the woman did not cook Ambul Thiyal anymore. That was how Bassa lost the will to live. His horoscope had said that he would live for 20 more years, and that bothered him a lot. Bassa had read somewhere that if one could focus one’s mind fully on a wish, that wish could come true. He chanted the ‘mad’ professor’s words every Sunday morning while staring at the boulder poised above the line of huts.
The next-door woman joined a prayer group led by a Hindu guru who performed miracles. The converts to the guru’s order were known to transform lustful, passionate love into pure compassion. Perhaps that was why she always had a thin smile on her face these days. The smile of compassion. Perhaps that was why she wore blouses that covered her shoulders. Perhaps that was why she didn’t cook Ambul Thiyal any longer. The murder of lust: the reason, maybe, why Bassa dreamt of death under a rock.
Godhamba Rotti: a large thin round bread made with wheat flour, oil and water.
Ambul Thiyal: a fish curry made by cooking spice marinated tuna fish. The spice coating includes a fine mix of Goraka, salt and pepper. This spice coating varies according to different cooking traditions. What is described in the story is a traditional recipe used by an elderly woman in Colombo suburbs.
Goraka: gamboge, a dried fruit used in cooking. It adds a sour, acid and sharp taste depending on the quantity used in the dish. Also known as Malabar tamarind in India.
~ Lal Medawattegadara is an academic and writer based in Colombo.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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